Istanbul, at once a whore and a fairy tale

Istanbul, at once a whore and a fairy tale In “Istanbul tales”, the city is both the protagonist and the narrator of the film. She becomes for an hour and a half the queen, the mother and the punisher of an attaching and moving group of underdogs. While watching them, “She” also tells her own fairy tales… A gypsy clarinet player as the Pied Piper… Cinderella, an ill-fated prostitute in love with an innocent youngster… A broke Kurdish youth newly arrived in Istanbul meets Sleeping Beauty… "Istanbul tales" tells the dark, gritty, angry, heart-rending stories of those who believed in Istanbul's fairy tales and shattered their lives. The five stories, written by Ümit Ünal, are told with surprising integrity by five directors.

An interview with Screenwriter and Director Ümit Ünal around the fascination with this city, the difficulty of this “exercise in style” and why Istanbul can be both a beautiful woman and a whore...

You’ve started your career as a screen writer and this is a your second film as a Director, How did you pass from one to the other?
I arrived in Istanbul from Izmir in 1985 and my first script was adapted for cinema in 1986. I was only 21 at the time but I was lucky enough to become a script writer straight away. From then on, 8 of my scripts became films. I then directed my first film, “9” in 2002. They were all addressing a Turkish public though...

How was your first impact with the city?
Istanbul is the biggest city, it is enormous in all senses. All the other cities in Turkey envy it, it is the centre of Turkish life, of all arts. The Cinema industry is there too. Even if Turkish political life is officially based in Ankara, politicians work actually a lot in Istanbul. It’s a kind of a secret capital. It’s so huge, crowded, beautiful, dirty, it can also be a bit dangerous sometimes, but it’s powerful and it is a city that stays with you.

As regards the city, the film presents a clear dichotomy: Istanbul is both a whore and a fairy tale... But let’s first agree on terminology. Is Istanbul a “she”?
In Turkish films, books, and songs, yes, traditionally, She is a She...You could explain this by the fact that they were all male writers and singers but...(laugh), to me too this city is a woman...London is a man, Rome seems a woman, such is Istanbul.
One of my inspirations for the film is an old poem by Teufil Fikret called “Mist”. He speaks to the city in the early morning, she’s awaking and is still covered with mist. He addresses her in these beautiful words: “Wake up you virgin whore of one thousand husbands”. Because everything happens there, the centre of life, people take it for a person.

You said that she is a “catalyst of all failures”...
Yes, you can find a lot of songs or poems giving the fault to the city for their own failures. The role of Emigrants is important in this personification. You have this song for instance in which a young country girl who sent her man to the city asks her -Istanbul- to give him back to her...

But you also choose to build the film around the fairy tale, it makes the city smoother...
Fairy tales are also built on fear to prepare for life. You find terrible situations in these stories, a wolf who eats a young girl, her grand mother...When they open-up the wolf, they are still alive...It’s horrid! I also chose these tales in particular because they are Western..

Do children in Turkey know about these tales?
In Turkey, as in Japan, the tales are well known. I could not explain why, but everyone seems to know about Cinderella’s shoe...But the tales chosen are also at the core of the Western culture. They were written by the Grimm brothers in Germany -the earth of Europe- in the 19th century. In the framework of the on-going debate about Turkey being European or not, I wanted to say that we are all the same, we share the same fears, the same mythology. I was also inspired by a J.L Borges’ book. I actually put a quotation of “The Plot” at the beginning of the film that says “Fate is partial to variations, repetitions and symmetry”. In this book, that takes place in Argentina, a big macho was stabbed in a dark street of Buenos Aires by his relatives. When he saw that his step brother was part of the conspiracy, he says “You too” (“Tu quoque”). All of a sudden this big macho guy in the other part of the world, became another Caesar...It inspired the scene of the mafia boss killed by its protégé...in Instanbul..

The film is also built on a strong interconnection of destinities. The Cinderella’s lover is passed over by a character of the Snow white episode. All these destinities are crossing each other’s paths...
I “stole” a lot from “Mystery train” by Jim Jarmush, a film I adored...Three stories are happening at the same time but are seen consequently...In recent years a lot of films were structured in that way, I’m thinking of Pulp fiction, Magnolia, 21 grammes, Amores perros...
Istanbul, at once a whore and a fairy tale Fairy tales usually talk about queens and kings, your characters are all underdogs...They stand for your real Istanbul?
I tried to give a panoramic view of the city. You could say I did‘t use a regular worker...but I’m more attracted by underdogs, I find them more cinematic. I also tried to tell the story of people I know. And I actually know all the characters of the film: when I moved to Istanbul I moved to a street full of transvestites and prostitutes. This street has been “cleaned up” now, but at the time I met Mimi Bay, the gay character of my film...The pimps were coming every night to beat them up...it was awful...I also met that Kurdish guy who plays Prince Charming during my military service. As the character of the film, he didn’t know a word of Turkish before entering the military service.

This leads us to this “gender war” that the film describes. The –man/woman relationships are extremely violent. Women are beaten up, chased, insulted, the target of killers...And in the middle of this gender war, gays and transvestites are acting as a link, are actually the savers, the positive characters...
It’s not a conscious thing...I’m with the oppressed, the weak...and I like them too...as representatives of a lot of different sub-cultures. The relationship between men and women is based on a balance of power. What happens to men and women outside, this struggle, can be found identically in the house. Especially in a country like Turkey, where women are still very much oppressed. I actually realised this after the film...It might be my personal view of this relationship after all..(laugh)

What were the reactions in Turkey regarding this approach on transvestites and gays?
In Istanbul there are a lot of transvestites, a lot of gay prostitution, it is visible. Usually people reject their stories, they do not want to see them or otherwise to make fun of them...But I think that with our film, we showed a very traditional love story involving a transvestite and therefore I did not get negative comments about it...They did not reject the idea of gay lovers...

The film is based on your screenwriting, but it was then directed by 5 directors...How did you deal with this?
At first I did not like the idea....It’s a director friend of mine who had it. She suggested to do 5 different sketches, with different shooting teams. It did not go this way. The team, cameramen, technicians were all the same we just changed the directors. I was actually present on nearly all the shootings. Except for the Snow White story, that I think is the weakest one, all directors collaborated a lot, working together for nearly 4 months before the shooting...

How was it dealing with 5 different directors’ “egos”..?
Well, we fired one, for instance, who wanted to impose his own actors. But apart from this, it is significant that at the end of the shooting, nobody was saying “my episode”, it actually became a private joke between us...For the car accident scene for instance, 4 directors were involved......For the Snow White part, 2 directors were present... We had to plan everything together..

What did the directors and actors think of this experience?
Both directors and actors liked it because it was so different, none of us had done it before....It seemed absurd at the beginning but then all these interconnections were also part of a directors game. And if I did it on my own, may be some scenes will have been different. I believe I’m good at directing actors but not that good for action scenes, if you take the car scene for instance, it would not have been so good if it were done by me... I learnt a lot too..

Would you do it again?
Never!! (laugh..) it represents a lot of compromise...and I would have brought more personal views...

To close with the city would you define Istanbul a Mediterranean city?
Istanbul is more than Mediterranean...Izmir, my home town for instance is very Mediterranean and I actually feel at home in Greece or in Italy...
But Istanbul is bigger then that, it is world in itself.
________________________________________________________________
Ümit Ünal studied film at Eylul University. His feature film"9" won the Best Turkish Film Prize at Istanbul Film Festival in 2002. Selim Demirdelen graduated from the Istanbul University of Economics. His film"Hasret ve Cevre" (1994 )received an award at IFSAK short film competition. Kudret Sabaci studied film at Eylul University. His last feature film, A Madonna in Laleli, received an important Prize at the 10th Orhan Ariburnu Awards. Yucel Yolku directed music videos and numerous commercials. Omur Atay studied film at Eylul University. He took the first prize at 1997 IFSAK short film competition with Necropolis. He also directs Tv series.

Prizes and Selections: “Istanbul tales” was the Winner of National Competition at 24th International Istanbul Film Festival: “The Best Turkish Film Of The Year Award”, “The Best Actress Award” To Yelda Reynaud. Winner of 12th Golden Cocoon Film Festival - 5 Awards (Turkey): "Best Film", "Best Cinematographer", "Best Studio", "Best Art Director", "Best Film Editing".

 


Catherine Cornet

 

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